President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) often claims his administration is consistent and reliable, but its policies with regard to agriculture have changed a lot since he came to power in 2008. During his first term, Ma and his team of agriculture officials made great efforts to uphold farmers’ rights and interests, insisting that his administration would not allow the import of 830 categories of Chinese agricultural products. They also promised to be vigilant in preventing Taiwanese agricultural know-how from spreading abroad.
Now, however, the situation is very different. Officials at the Council of Agriculture (COA) have publicly stated that the government’s earlier concerns about the leaking of agricultural know-how abroad and a ban on Taiwanese farmers investing in China have in fact led, bit by bit, to agricultural techniques being lost. These officials have hinted that, following the signing of the cross-strait Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement in 2010, restrictions on investment in Chinese agriculture will be greatly relaxed and that the government will consider allowing Taiwanese farmers to transfer agricultural know-how abroad as complete packages.
If these proposed policy changes go ahead, they will have a huge impact on the future viability and development of Taiwanese agriculture. In fact the impact will be far greater than if the 830 categories of farm produce that have so far been banned were allowed to be imported. The government must now come clean and ensure that Taiwanese farmers and fishermen understand the implications.
Taiwan’s water and land resources are limited. The -average size of a Taiwanese farm is less than 1 hectare, so it is very hard for farmers to compete with big farms in other countries which often cover dozens or even hundreds of hectares. They are at a clear disadvantage in terms of economies of scale.
The state provides farmers with subsidies and relief and imposes import restrictions. Apart from these, Taiwanese farmers depend on continued improvements in crop variety, productive know-how and overall product quality to stand up to competition from overseas, which uses lower production costs to compete by offering lower prices.
The problem is that new techniques and varieties are not so easy to come by. It takes considerable time, energy, manpower and money to make these things happen and sometimes it also takes a bit of luck to make a particular technique or variety into a viable commodity and to become profitable. That being the case, the state should protect these assets and not allow them to be transferred abroad willy-nilly, where they can fall into the hands of potential competitors.
The Spice Wars of old are a well-known example of how that can happen. Utilizing hard-won achievements in research and development to bring greater wealth to Taiwanese farmers, so that they no longer have to rely on non-farming income to get by, as they do now for 80 percent of their income, remains an important mission for the government.
In national defense, there are military secrets and in information technology there are scientific secrets. Does agriculture not also have its core techniques that should be kept secret?
When discussing the transfer overseas of agricultural science and technology, government officials often talk about how Taiwan has unique conditions, such as its water, soil, climate and so on, which are not things that other countries can copy. They say this means that even if people take Taiwanese crop varieties abroad to plant, that will not result in farm products of the same quality, so we do not need to worry too much about this.